IPA Review Editorial, October 2007

In the security scare that followed September 11, it became something of a sport for American news organisations to sneak prohibited items through airport screening security.

So when The Chaser — the Australian political satire group — loosely disguised themselves as the Canadian delegation convoy, and easily passed the security at APEC, it wasn’t surprising. The media pounced on the incident — after all, not much else was happening of interest at APEC. The Chaser’s War on Everything, when it aired the next week, achieved its highest ratings ever.

The Chaser is part of a genre of satirical news programs, which include the US’s The Daily Show and its spin-off, The Colbert Report that are gathering loyalty from the apparently ‘disengaged’ youth demographic.

(It is conspicuous that the commentators who bemoan the Australia’s ‘disengaged’ youth always assume that once they become engaged they will immediately become Left activists. But what if all those yoof got off their bed, put down their headphones, and en masse joined the Young Liberals?)

The popularity of satirical news programs with youth audiences has led some on the Left to view these programs as the saviour of democratic engagement. But satire is a double edged sword. It doesn’t always do what you think does.

Some on the Left have cottoned on to the uncertain potential of satirical news. One piece last year in the Boston Globewas titled ‘Why Jon Stewart Isn’t Funny’, and it argued that the host of The Daily Show, through his relentless satire of Washington buffoonery, encouraged political complacency.

The article claimed that The Daily Show leads audiences to adopt a ‘holier than art thou attitude toward… national leaders’ and undermined ‘any remaining earnestness that liberals in America might still possess’. Given the dreary sanctimony of so many of those in the American Left, if this is true then Jon Stewart does a fantastically important public service. But the Boston Globe writer is spot on. Satirical news programs display an extremely cynical attitude towards the political class.

After all, making fun of politicians is really easy, and fantastically rewarding. The Colbert Report and The Chaser’s War on Everything are able to take advantage of the self-seriousness and cautious approach to the media that politicians harbour. Stephen Colbert, in his ‘Better Know a District’ interviews, successfully tricks junior politicians into making outlandish statements. (‘It was wrong to break the law to get people out of slavery — that’s what you just said’) And The Chaser is never funnier than when they are harassing humourless politicians at their press conferences.

But Left politics relies on the heroic politician, blessed with intellect and political cunning, to enact policies in the ‘national internet’ for the betterment of ‘society’. Cynicism about the type of people who choose to go in to politics and the capabilities of government action does clash with the ongoing hunt in the left for the political saviour.

For this reason, The Chaser’s jokes may seem fairly leftwing, but by undermining the sacred authority of the political class, satirical news tends to be more libertarian than socialist. A generation raised on cynicism and sarcasm are far less likely to jump on the bandwagon of a charismatic leader-type.

The IPA Review has been sceptical of governments, politicians, regulators and other self-appointed ‘leaders’ for sixty years, and this edition is no different. Sinclair Davidson and Ken Phillips criticise the ideological baggage of the union movement, in teaching and construction respectively. Tim Wilson treats yet another call for a government petrol price inquiry with the contempt it deserves. Jennifer Marohasy and Alan Ashbarry decry the cultural divide of forest politics. And in our cover story, Nicholas Eberstadt stares directly into the eyes of the anti-natalists, and asks what they have against children.

Wolfgang Kasper reminds us that federalism is more than just anachronistic ‘State’s rights’, as the Prime Minister seems to consider it. Instead, the principles of federalism are at the heart of liberal government. And Richard Allsop completes the thankless task of reading recent Prime Ministerial biographies, to try to discover more important things than the hometown of John Howard’s grandfather.

There is, of course, the standard array of book reviews, complaints about regulation, personal digs at high-profile environmentalists, and references to Adam Smith that have made the IPA Review Australia’s leading free market review of politics and public policy